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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                   275

to, but.... Well, let that go! See here, Meresyev, flying
is not such an easy thing for you, and that's why I intend
to make it hot for your instructor."

Alexei said nothing. He wondered what kind of a man
it was puffing his pipe. A bureaucrat who was annoyed
because someone had ignored his authority by failing to
report an unusual occurrence in the life of the school? A
petty official who had discovered a clause in the regula-
tions governing the choice of flying personnel that pro-
hibited men with physical disabilities from going on
flights? Or a crank jumping at the opportunity to exhibit
his power? What did he want? Why did he blow in when
Meresyev was sick at heart enough as it was, and felt like
putting his neck in a noose?

He felt like kicking the man out and restrained him-
self with difficulty. Months of suffering had taught him
to avoid drawing hasty conclusions, and there was some-
thing in this ungainly Kapustin that fleetingly reminded
him of Commissar Vorobyov whom Meresyev called a
real man. The light in Kapustin's pipe glowed and died
out, and his broad face, fleshy nose and wise, penetrating
eyes emerged from the bluish gloom and vanished again.
Kapustin went on:

"Listen, Meresyev. I don't want to pay you compli-
ments, but say what you like, you are the only footless
man in the world to handle a fighter plane. The only
one!" He unscrewed the mouth-piece of his pipe and
peered through it at the dim light of a bulb and shook
his head in perplexity. "I am not talking about you wish-
ing to go back to the combat unit. It is certainly praise-
worthy, but there is nothing particular in it. At a time like
this everybody wants to do his very best to achieve
victory.... What's happened to this damn pipe?"

He began to clean the mouth-piece again and seemed
completely absorbed in the task; but Alexei, alarmed by
a vague presentiment, was now on tenterhooks, eager to
hear what he was going to say. Continuing to fidget with
his pipe, Kapustin went on speaking, without seeming to
care what impression his words made:

"It's not merely the personal matter of Senior Lieuten-
ant Alexei Meresyev. The point is that you, a footless
man, have acquired a skill that the whole world had